A hopeful morning sun peeks over our high backyard tree line as I sip my morning coffee, reflecting on these past few highly eventful years. The grand house we always dreamed of, flanked by tall trees and lush woods, tucked away from a world that threatens us more every day, feels empty most of the time.
College has dramatically expanded our daughter’s universe, her whirlwind visits sweep through the house like a loving gust, warm and wistful. Echoes from the days when her world was much smaller. When she wasn’t perpetually preparing to leave.
A recent burst of summer family and guest activity briefly filled our many empty rooms and outdoor space with conversation and social energy. Preparations brought the hope for meaningful human connection. And as the last of our sleeping guests awaken and prepare to leave us, I relish their departure. Voices talking, laughing, demanding to be heard, echoing off the hardwoods, now blissfully silent. As I mourn the long forgotten art of genuine listening, of making true connection with friends and loved ones, I look out over the lush green treeline, searching for that next opportunity.
The last few years marked the acceleration of my journey inward, as I recall how the COVID pandemic laid the infrastructure for it all. Closure of external social avenues. Working from home. Addiction to streaming TV. Daily Amazon care packages arriving at the door. A deeper, more intimate relationship with the couch. The incessant stream of news, and obsession with all things Donald Trump.
As the 2020 election drew nearer, you could literally feel the figurative fabric of our society tearing apart and into two camps, both rabid with their own fear and outrage, their separate realities defined solely by the flavor of “news,” devoured like pigs head down in a trough. My local newspaper would arrive each week, the page 3 opinion section plastered with full-throated conservative grievances from one particular neighbor, his ignorance drowning out any joyful local news. My many unpublished rebuttals drove me to personally contact the paper’s editor, provoking a two-day, vitriolic email exchange. Drinks by the pool one afternoon led to calling old Navy buddies, with one conversation beginning lightheartedly, then ending in a political screaming match.
Funny, but soon after I got my head around it, I actually did see it as a gift. Treatments exhausted and weakened me (and, for now, saved me). But the unexpected gift was that it forced me to live and think more intentionally, leaving me clearer about what I really want and need. I think I became more intentional about how I loved, but would let my wife and daughter be the ultimate judge.
I kept my medical news within a tight circle, but eventually it just became a public part of my life story, perhaps offering a way to connect more meaningfully with people in my circle. But what I discovered was that most people aren’t interested in connecting emotionally in ways that take them out of their comfort zone. They say cliché, rehearsed things they’re supposed to say. Awareness of something profound going on with a friend can disturb the safe, rehearsed way most people prefer to comfortably interact.
I began bicycling again, mostly on a nearby eight-mile smoothly paved scenic trail through the natural beauty of southern Rhode Island. The surrounding woods and streams connected by secluded back roads invite me to breathe deeply. Beginning at the Kingston train station and ending by the beaches of Narragansett, the wooden mile markers lead through small communities where motorists drive slowly, smile, and wave you across.
The primary stop on this trail provides an inviting spot to pause and rest, complete with a drinking fountain, public benches, two well-maintained public bathrooms, and a notice board with upcoming local events.
One morning, I removed my earbuds, got a drink at the fountain and decided to walk around. I spotted several women moving fluidly from inside the front window of a yoga studio. Across the street, two mechanics smiled as they worked on cars on lifts with pneumatic tools. Brickley’s Ice Cream wasn’t yet open, but I recalled it was a center hub of town activity once a summer day got going.
I wandered into Phil’s Diner. A pretty kid, probably my daughter’s age, in full makeup at 7:00 A.M. on a Saturday, greeted me warmly. I sat at a counter stool, pulled a credit card from inside my sock and ordered a coffee, unconcerned for my unlocked bicycle outside. I watched a heavily tattooed woman skillfully prepare an omelet on a griddle, the lightly charred smell of hash brown potatoes wafting by made me actively consider eating. A young, bearded man sat two stools down with his daughter. I sipped my coffee, touched by the lovely way he spoke to her as they considered their order.
I noticed a set of stairs at the entrance and decided to continue my exploration upward. At the top of the steps I turned left and onto an open air bridge that crossed over an alley, onto the adjacent building.
Apparently Phil’s had annexed their neighbors rooftop for open-air dining overlooking Main Street. A few patrons sat under feathered trees as a cool morning breeze passed. A bartender wiped the morning dew from beer glasses behind a stylish bar. A young couple sat at the bar sharing mimosas, tickled to be enjoying this early morning experience.
I would receive bicycle tire air and tools from the friendly mechanics. I discovered a coffee house another block down, where people lingered at the counter and read novels or sat near the storefront window writing on laptops.
A tiny stage with a stool and microphone stand suggested occasional live entertainment. One early evening I took my wife there to find a duo playing music in the window. The singer, an older woman who looked like she might have played Woodstock, sang eclectic tunes with a sweet, soulful lilt in her voice. Her musical partner picked and strummed acoustic melodies while offering an occasional vocal harmony. She loved it when we told her during a break that her heartfelt songs were very “off the main road.” The bartender, who doubled as the shop’s owner, showed off his Rolls Royce cappuccino machine, clearly the cafe’s biggest capital asset.
I would soon join the yoga studio. My body, immediately comfortable with the tranquility of the vinyasa flow, still struggled with diminished balance and diminished core strength. The yoga priestess guided us through a meditative practice that felt nourishing. Her words calmly guided us with uncanny physiological intuition, her keen awareness of how specific muscles in my body might feel in a particular movement, that awareness of the feeling of my own breathing changes how I see everything. I am relaxed, connected to myself, the earth and this group by the energy in the space. And as we eased into a deep, final shivasana, the priestess delivered a homily, reading a Persian poem called The Guest House, that connected many of the things I had been feeling. I am reminded in this moment and at this phase of my life, that yoga now fed my soul more effectively than church.
It’s a place where I do more listening than talking, observing and only interacting with others when there’s a purpose. Joy seems to spring from the connection to it all without dependance on incessant, self-indulgent transmitting.
The community vibe on Main Street reminds me of a simple electronic circuit, a metaphorical charcuterie board, each of us unique ingredients in a connected circuit with an elegant purpose. Capacitance, resistance, relay, power… each of us bringing a special variety that impacts the whole in subtle ways. Souls flowing like electrons into and through gathering places, the streets serving as the circuit’s metalized trace.
Removing oneself from this human circuit cuts us off from the important little experiences that bring shape to our humanity. We actually need to experience the power of the whole circuit to experience what I believe is our intended purpose as people.
Our houses weren’t designed to be empty. They were built for community. We need to fill every room and welcome every guest as often as possible, absorbing whatever it is that they bring to us. And hopefully, one day before we go, we will be lucky enough to learn of the value we silentLy brought to them.
By Jalaluddin Rumi
this being human is a guest house
every morning a new arrival
a joy, a depression, a meanness
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor
welcome and entertain them all!
even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture
still, treat each guest honorably
for some new delight
the dark thought, the shame, the malice
meet them at the door laughing
and invite them in
be grateful for whoever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond